Friday, November 8, 2013

Ordinary Compassion

A Beautiful Wilderness
-untamed relationship-

Over the past few days, two pictures posted online have gone viral.  The first was a picture of Pope Francis embracing a severely disfigured man at one of the recent papal audiences. 

It is a tender picture of compassion, especially in light of the fact that in recent memory there have been few pictures of any church leader (let alone a pope) down at the level of common people, especially those who are most on the fringes of life.  So, I'm not at all surprised that this online image went viral and I am exceptionally glad it did.

However, yesterday, another picture popped up online, enjoying just as much worldwide exposure as the image of Pope Francis. For me, this picture was even more powerful than the one of the compassionate pope. 

Isaac Theil, a 65 year-old New York City Jewish man, wearing a yarmulke, was riding on the Q train in Brooklyn. A young African American man, wearing a "hoodie"sat next to Mr. Theil, placed his head on his shoulders and fell asleep for the duration of the subway ride home. 

A fellow passenger, worrying about Isaac Theil's safety asked if he needed any assistance. Isaac looked at the young man asleep on his shoulder and simply replied, 

He must have had a hard day. Let him sleep. We've all been there. 

Whereupon the fellow passenger snapped a picture of Isaac Theil and his sleeping companion and posted it online.  The picture went viral -worldwide within hours.

I was so deeply moved by that one little image of the older Jewish man in the Yarmulke offering his shoulder to the young African American man in the hoodie. In fact it was far more moving to me than the picture of the pope embracing the disfigured man in Saint Peter's Square.  

For me, a picture of a compassionate pope, although tender and beautiful, seems far removed from me and my experiences. While I can respect it, I have no way to identify with the life of a pope holding an audience amidst the throngs of people; and besides, pope's are (theoretically) supposed to be compassionate - it's sort of in their job description. 

But on that subway in New York, everyday, ordinary real life was going on.  The picture of those two passengers sitting next to each other on a New York subway was a holy icon for me. 

I've been on many subways in many cities. This picture was not an image of a distant hero in a faraway place; it was an icon of ordinary people in everyday life.  

People can be cruel and hateful, but we human beings also have the capacity for unselfish love and tender compassion. The subway picture reminded me that while we often only see the darker side of humanity, every single day ordinary, average people regularly engage in simple acts of kindness toward one another.  

Although often going unnoticed, and in a myriad of unsung ways,  every single day, weary people are offered a shoulder on which to rest. 

He must have had a hard day, let him sleep. We've all been there.

I believe that the picture of those two subway passengers went viral so instantly because it showed people everywhere the best of who we human beings are. It was a picture of the better angels in all of us. 

The picture not only showed us who we are, it reminded us of all that we are capable of becoming.

In my office I have all sorts of holy images hung on my wall- icons of Jesus, icons of saints, an icon of the Buddha. I have now downloaded this picture of the young man in the hoodie resting on the shoulder of the older man with the yarmulke, and placed the picture on my computer desktop.

It is a holy icon of everyday ordinary compassion - a reminder of the "better angels" of our human condition. 


  1. Paul, I enjoy your blog very much and feel an intellectual and spiritual commonality with you; it's that reason why I wanted to share this with you. I'm sincerely working on being more compassionate in every way, but have great difficulty summoning up compassion for those who choose to ignore conventional wisdom and common sense and in doing so invite horrible suffering into their life. It's like the child who disobeys his mother by putting his hand in the fire then seeks out love and sympathy. I often find myself turning my back to these people and feel guilty in doing so. Any comments?

  2. I think there are many ways in which we can express compassion and show kindness. Sometimes it involves sitting back without judgement. At other times, the kindest thing we can do for a person is to challenge some bad behavior.

    Ive always said that you don't even have to like someone to love them.

  3. Thank you for your insight. Each image is powerful in its own way. Your words give a holiness to them.

  4. I am most grateful for this generous comment